It is my first time at the Biennale and, in fact, my first trip to Venice. Since I am only here for a long weekend, seasoned travelers and art experts alike were concerned that the combination of the world’s most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art and the perfect jewel of one of the world’s oldest cities might not allow me enough time to enjoy either. Blessedly, this does not seem to be the case.
Of the hundreds of works I see by artists from 70 different countries, it feels like hardly any of it is two-dimensional paintings hanging on walls. Instead, I am met with a mind-expanding array of non-traditional sculptures, video pieces, performance art, site-specific installations and audience participation experiments. Step inside a mirrored chamber and join the holographic couple dancing to “The Look of Love” (Valseka Soares’ “Tonight”); Climb inside Marika Mori’s “Wave UFO” and have a brainwave interface with your fellow participants; Enter a stunning medieval church, take off your shoes, lie down on orange velvet cushions, and gaze up at Pipilotti Rist’s kaleidoscopic video, partly filmed in, and created especially for, the church’s roof; Select the piece of music you’d like played at your own funeral, then lie in state on your funereal platform and simulate the experience while your song selection plays (The Centre of Attention’s “Swansong”).
As part of “Zero Hero,” a phenomenal installation by John Bock, filling an entire room of the Arsenale, the artist, an actor and a techie suddenly begin filming a performance art piece in and around his work. But, problems with the light and sound cause them to stop and discuss in German what to do. The traditional discussions between take 1 and take 2? Or all just part of the piece? In the Italian pavilion, Francesco Vezzoli shows a “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” starring Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren and, in the title role, OF COURSE, Courtney Love. The trailer comes complete with the green MPAA “approved for all audiences” tag on the front—except the movie does not exist and the scantily-clad woman sucking a gold leaf-covered naked man’s penis is just our first clue that this trailer probably won’t, in fact, be playing in front of “Herbie Reloaded” (insert sexually suggestive and/or tasteless Lindsay Lohan joke here).
The art is falling and pouring off of the walls, completely blurring the lines between artist and audience, reality and fantasy (or, more appropriately these days, reality and scripted), art and life. And, by art, I’m not just referring to the classically gorgeous water taxi driver, Gabriel and my divine room at the Hotel al Ponte Dei Sospiri, the fantastic clothes worn by a staggering percentage of the Biennial Attendees, the whole fresh anchovies, lightly battered and floating in a perfect polenta at Da Fiore, or running into the fabulous Michelle Lamey, late of Le Duex Café fame in LA, now resettled in Paris, inside the top of an Alp (!), built around and on top of the Austrian pavilion by Hans Schabus.
L’arte e orunque. Art is everywhere.
Thankfully, much of the art is also, of course, making political statements of all kinds. As part of Christoph Buchel and Gianni Motti’s “Guantanamo Initiative,” the artists question the legality of the U.S. Government’s lease on Guantanamo Bay. In addition to displaying treaties and documents that expose the illegitimacy of the U.S. lease contract imposed on Cuba in 1903, the exhibition presents the 47 annual rent checks issued by the U.S. Treasury which the Cuban Government has refused to cash since 1959. The artists further have asked the Cuban Government to consider leasing the land to them instead of the U.S. Government (the un-cashed checks are for $4085 a year) to transform the land from a military base into a cultural one.
With the shared communal experience of the art, artists and art enthusiasts from Israel and Iran, Serbia and Croatia, China, Korea and Afghanistan comes hope, hope that freedom of expression is an integral part of the human condition that cannot be killed, hope that Guantanamo Bay really will be shut down someday soon, if not actually leased to Christoph and Gianni, hope that Gabriel and I will get back to Venice, next time for more than 2 days, but with an equally gorgeous water taxi driver.
La speranza dura per sempre. Hope springs eternal.